AH, WILDERNESS!

Times Travel Editor

Few wildernesses on earth offer the harmony of the immense San Juan National Forest with its alpine meadows, fishing streams and icy waterfalls. Being here is an experience that haunts the soul long after one returns to the restless world of cities and freeways.

It is Saturday afternoon and the dream is over.

Skies are leaden and thunder rolls through a forested valley, colliding headlong with rocky mountain peaks and echoing along a river that flows beside meadows carpeted with wildflowers.

Soon the rains will come--as well as the train that signals a return to the real world.

For a few days, 30 guests at Colorado's famed Ah, Wilderness ranch have learned the true meaning of solitude in a setting as peaceful as a passing cloud, as pure as a rainbow.

None is eager to leave.

As they board the narrow-gauge train that will return them to Durango, they will carry with them the memories of deer peering from a forest, of icy waterfalls, picnics beneath ponderosa pine and an overnight pack trip to a pristine hideaway high in the Rockies.

Ah, Wilderness is an experience that haunts the soul long after one returns to the restless world of cities and freeways.

Twenty-five miles north of Durango, it is accessible only by the century-old narrow-gauge train that struggles through the canyon three times a day en route to the mining town of Silverton. There is no other access, not even a road. Either one arrives by train or else hikes in; the nearest highway is five miles south of this ranch that's hidden among aspens and evergreens that spread their shade along the Animas River with its deep gorges, rapids and raging white water.

Few wish to leave, says ranch manager Larry Hays, a youthful John Denver look-alike. Hays was managing a hotel in Dallas when he got the offer to return to his native Colorado and he's never looked back.

Those who vacation on this riding ranch with its star-filled heavens soon learn why: Few wildernesses on Earth offer the harmony of the immense San Juan National Forest with its alpine meadows, fishing streams and icy waterfalls.

Twenty years ago, traveling on the little narrow-gauge train to Silverton, I saw the weathered sign beside the river announcing Ah, Wilderness. In Denver the other day I boarded the same train on the same scenic trip that's a flashback to a more peaceful period, a brief moment when America was young and the West was a challenge to be met with courage. Was it really so inspiring, my earlier trip to a near-forgotten yesterday, following the paths of prospectors and railroaders who fought and frequently failed to conquer the Colorado wilderness?

Yes, of course.

Leaving Durango, the engineer tooted the whistle a couple of times and the train lurched forward. Soon it was passing fields of columbine and cattle grazing near the tracks and meadows choked with alfalfa and bales of hay. The steam whistle echoed mournfully as the train inched its way through the canyon, clinging tenaciously to a ledge hundreds of feet above the Animas where the river raged and boiled through rapids and mist-filled gorges.

The canyon has heard the train's whistle for more than a century now. In the beginning the train carried fortunes in ore between Silverton and Durango on its path beneath the peaks of the Continental Divide.

No film director ever captured the scene more dramatically than the engineer of the train with its conductors in their bib overalls and passengers focusing cameras on scenes reminiscent of some Alpine region in far-off Bavaria. While the fireman shovels coal, the scent of pine and smoke fill the air, and deer and elk peer from the forest. Exactly 90 minutes into the trip the train makes its brief stop at Ah, Wilderness.

Waiting beside the track are Larry Hays and his wranglers. While guests hike across a meadow, a horse-drawn wagon delivers luggage to cabins hidden in the forest.

Home for a few days will be this world without telephones or TV, a world disturbed only by the voice of the wind, the rush of the river and the song of birds.

Inside the cabins, guests discover old-fashioned coal buckets filled with wood for a Franklin stove. There are rockers and down comforters and a kerosene lamp in the event the lights should fail, which occurs during summer thunderstorms.

At Ah, Wilderness guests dine family style in the main lodge on fowl and barbecued beef, cowboy biscuits and beans, homemade cakes and pies, blueberry pancakes and an assortment of other ranch-style offerings. While the fare is satisfying, dining can't be considered one of the pluses at Ah, Wilderness. The primary appeal is the rare opportunity to duck out on the world of terrorism and traffic to concentrate on catching a trout or panning for gold or riding a horse to a waterfall whose icy veil provides welcome relief on a hot summer day.

Ah, Wilderness is one of the few U.S. ranches to feature a female wrangler, blonde, blue-eyed Jehnet Carlson who grew up in Seattle, left school to shoe horses and later worked at ranches in Wyoming and Arizona before putting in her appearance this spring at Ah, Wilderness.

Earlier, Carlson did a stint as a groom at Bay Meadows in San Francisco, but quit because she couldn't take the stress of the city. She's a free spirit who shears sheep, breaks horses and dreams of traveling to faraway places.

Presently, though, Ah, Wilderness is as far as she's gotten.

After long trail rides with Carlson, guests sink into a steamy hot tub; there are chuck wagon cookouts, square dances and songfests beside a campfire. Riders play horseshoes and billiards and explore deserted mines. Others spread their bedrolls beside an alpine lake during an overnight pack trip.

Ah, Wilderness is a year-round resort. Hunters arrive in the fall, and there's a winter package that features ice skating, cross-country skiing and sleigh rides. For the downhill skier, helicopters lift groups over the mountain to the slopes at Purgatory.

The Christmas Tree

At Christmastime guests sing carols, string popcorn and cranberries and help decorate a tree that's been delivered fresh from the forest. While snows fall, a couple of magnificent draft horses pull wagons loaded with guests through the meadow, trailed by a couple of mongrel dogs. Back in the lodge, the coffee pot is kept boiling and hot chocolate is served along with homemade cookies.

The six-day Sunday-to-Saturday package figures out to $450 for adults and $360 for youngsters.

And then there is Tall Timber, a resort up the tracks a mile or so from Ah, Wilderness where sybarites cast their lot with other vacationers. Tall Timber is a spiffy resort that appeals to discriminating types who place comfort and pleasure ahead of trail rides and such.

Spotted dead center of 180 acres, Tall Timber is a five-star Mobil Guide choice that displays five diamonds from the American Automobile Assn. crowd as well. Indeed, it is a country club in the wilderness that attracts the sort of clientele that favors Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands and Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Tall Timber is a first-class act, known for its style and its kitchen, which turns out magnificent meals in a new $1-million lodge with views of a meadow where deer and the elk play.

Lack of Horseplay

The privately owned spread is as far from civilization as Ah, Wilderness is. This, though, is where the comparison ends. While Ah, Wilderness is a riding ranch, Tall Timber caters to vacationers seeking solitude, luxury and none of the horseplay associated with Colorado's dude ranches. Indeed, there's not a single nag in sight. Instead, Tall Timber offers tennis, hot tubs, a Finnish sauna, swimming and a par-three golf course that slices through a splendid aspen grove.

Guests have the option of taking the narrow-gauge train from Durango or skipping the wilderness journey in favor of a 15-minute helicopter ride. Either way, the Sunday-through-Saturday rate is pegged at $1,085 per person, double occupancy, or $2,085 for a single, and none of this includes the alpine picnics by helicopter to distant meadows at $115 per head.

Tall Timber was built from the ground up by Dennis Beggrow and pals from the University of Denver, including manager John Haveles. Snug chalets with sleeping lofts rise in the forest, extravagant cottages featuring floor-to-ceiling fireplaces, deep sofas, barn board and gifts delivered each evening by the staff: miniature liqueurs, nuts and dried fruits, wines, candies and other surprises. In addition, each guest is given a velour robe that's his or hers to keep when the vacation is over. Open since 1974, Tall Timber is a ritzy wilderness hideaway that accommodates 24 guests.

'Butch Cassidy' Fame

A waterfall spills down a mountainside not far from Grasshopper Creek, and there's the meadow where Hollywood came to film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and other Westerns.

There's a swimming pool that was delivered by the train, plus miles of trails that lead into the forest and to icy streams that swell the river. Guests gather in the library with its 3,000 volumes and fish for trout along the Animas. They do without TV and telephones and unwind in a setting that cries out with silence.

Meanwhile, back at Ah, Wilderness the train has arrived. While guests prepare for the return to the real world, the staff waves from the meadow and the engineer tugs at the whistle. Once more the mournful cry echoes through the canyon, signaling the end to a holiday that few will forget.

Ah, Wilderness, P.O. Box 997, Durango, Colo. 81301. Telephone (303) 247-4121. (Open year-round).

Tall Timber, SSR Box 90, Durango, Colo. 81301. Telephone (303) 259-4813. (Season: May 15-Oct. 31, Dec. 5-Jan. 20).

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